Pasadena Star News: Sean Kennedy: California should fix its broken ESL programs

August 03, 2013

By Sean Kennedy

With more than 6 million California adults -- mostly immigrants -- adults lacking adequate English skills, the state doesn't need another blue ribbon panel. The state needs to repair the broken system that is meant to teach immigrants English, the real key to unlocking the American dream.

Though there has been significant attention given to English-learner K-12 students (California has 1.5 million, according to recent estimates), there has been little attention to the much bigger population of adults -- 23 million nationally -- who require greater English skills.

For these adults, English matters. For Latino adults, limited English directly contributes to dropping out of school and $3,000 in lost wages each year -- costing the U.S. economy a total of $38 billion annually. But English proficiency can be as vital and basic as parents communicating with teachers and doctors about their child's well-being. And despite the rhetoric on both sides, immigrants are highly motivated to learn English. Immigrants know that English is the key to the American dream, upward mobility and assimilation.

But the system meant to help these adult learners is fundamentally broken. The problem is government-run programs for adult English learners are broken. According to the U.S. Department of Education, between 2007 and 2010 only 40 percent of those enrolled in a government-funded or
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-administered course improved their English proficiency. The remaining 60 percent either dropped out or failed to advance. Furthermore, numerous government programs do not even collect data on effectiveness of such programs and where federal and state funds go.

Some states like California are failing to advance the majority of students enrolled in ESL courses. Only 47 percent of California adults enrolled in programs tracked by the Department of Education demonstrated any progress toward English proficiency in 2009-10. Furthermore, those programs only enrolled a small fraction of the total need -- 301,000 students of the 6.2 million adults requiring greater proficiency in English, or barely 5 percent of eligible adults.

Nonprofit organizations and corporate programs have significantly better outcomes. For example, Puente Learning Center in Los Angeles regularly advances 85 percent of its students toward proficiency by tailoring its curriculum and course design to student needs. Under the nonprofit Building Skills Partnership, Google and the SEIU have partnered up in Silicon Valley to teach janitors English and are achieving similarly impressive outcomes.

State Sen. Ricardo Lara from Bell Gardens knows that government programs are failing immigrants, so he wanted to create a state-level Office of New Americans. Critics objected to a new bureaucracy in lean fiscal times, so Lara will settle for a task force that will recommend to lawmakers how existing bureaucracy can better assist immigrants in the state. Lara's bill has passed the state Senate and awaits a vote in the Assembly.

Lara's proposal is modeled after efforts in Chicago where in 2011 Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched his own Office of New Americans to make Chicago "the most immigrant-friendly city" in the country. The experience of Chicago's Office of New Americans has important lessons for lawmakers who want to adopt Chicago's immigrant-friendly approach.

First, California needs to recognize the utter failure of the current adult English system. In Chicago, only 33 percent of students enrolled in English-as-a-second-language classes, run by the city's community colleges, advanced in proficiency, which the head of the Chicago effort, Adolfo Hernandez, rightly calls "not satisfactory."

Next, policymakers must institute rigorous accountability standards. According to Hernandez, Chicago was failing its adult learners because it was not reflecting on its failure -- it never asked students why they dropped out or what could be done to improve the courses. Nonprofits like the Building Skills Partnership and Puente track their successes and failures through data continuously and adjust accordingly. Private donors and students expect results and organizations that are not delivering should be shuttered.

Finally, the state should revisit its model for teaching English as a second language. Most observers don't realize there is no evidence-based research supporting the current instructional model for adult learners. Models that are working at community-based organizations focus on student learner needs first and foremost and tailor the programs accordingly. One promising technique is blended learning that uses computer adaptive software and small group instruction to both remediate and accelerate student learning.

Lara's proposal, which focuses on collecting recommendations on streamlining government bureaucracy to better serve these immigrants, risks being too broad and not doing much at all to help immigrants. If these adults and their children are given the tools -- English proficiency being the primary one -- there is no need for California to create further bureaucracy aimed at integrating these adults.

Fixing the broken adult education system across California would do much more to help immigrants assimilate and achieve the American dream than any new commission or office ever could.Sean Kennedy is a fellow with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Arlington, Va., and co-author of the recent report, "Repairing The Nation's Education System for Adult Learners" released in July.

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